Chevalier Movie Review
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Chevalier (2023) wants to be the complete package of hidden biography, historical enigma, and bodice-ripping romance, but it’s not.
Through the happenstance of his birth in 1745, Joseph Bologne (Kelvin Harroson, Jr), the illegitimate son of a wealthy French plantation owner and one of his slaves, is shuttled off to a music conservatory to study the violin for which he has a natural talent. Joseph becomes skilled at violin and somehow, fencing, while winning the admiration of Queen Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton). She grants him the title of Chevalier de Saint-Georges, or Knight of St George, a mocking honorarium since as a Black man, he cannot legally hold a title of nobility.
Chevalier opens with an impromptu musical jam session between Joseph and Mozart (Joseph Prowen), to the wild applause of those in attendance. Joseph becomes renowned for both his musical compositions and fencing skills, and becomes a celebrity in the snobbiest of French society’s circles. He has the ear of the Queen, and catches the eye of many women. He wins the love of Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) and makes enemies of nobility (Marton Csokas). Complicating matters, following the death of his father, his mother (Ronke Adekoluejo) moves in and tried to give lessons on what it is to be a Black man in France without roots or a pedigree. Against the backdrop of growing dissent between French citizens and their monarchy, Chevalier races to complete an opera to win the position of director of the esteemed Paris Opera.
If it sounds a little jumbled, wait until you see how they try to stitch it together.
Chevalier is adrift among pages of half-finished music, PG love scenes, and inexplicable walks down dark alleys with threats of violence. Joseph Bologne was a smart man with loads of talent, but he is a side character in his own story. Arrogance, while certainly a character flaw, comes across as a mild tantrum when faced with overt racism. Even meetings of protest organizers against the monarchy distill his presence to background character, leaving the toothless dialog of rebellion to flow from the mouths of others.
Chevalier would have you believe that Joseph did nothing but write unproduced operas and sleep with married women, which considerably cheapens the history lesson. The reality is far more impressive, however the paper-thin screenplay by Stefani Robinson barely highlights his prowess with the violin, and the romance with a local singer feels like a cheap Shakespearean knockoff. Even the intertitles at the end of the film reduce his life to a few sentences of mediocrity, focusing upon what had been done to him and his works following the French Revolution, as opposed to his many merits as an abolitionist and renowned composer.
Chevalier wants to be a period piece that’s resplendent with gorgeous costumes, highly beaded corsets, and powdered wigs, but all of the gaily dressed people dancing to the rock music of their time do nothing for the empty story and an illicit romance completely devoid of passion. The trailers would have you believe that Chevalier was a story of a talented musician who led a revolution with nothing but his bow and foil, but instead, it lingered on the promise of a Big Competition and a doomed relationship. It’s a story that’s been done before with far more excitement and certainly more fencing. There is a sequence towards the end that has Joseph Bologne embracing his culture in the streets of France, like he’s finally been invited to the BBQ and he feels at home, and holy smokes, does it mash the Pander button hard.
Look, because Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges was essentially purged from French history books, a lot of his life is unknown or cobbled from secondhand tales and recovered operas. This means Chevalier should have been presented as a larger-than-life figure, woven from tall tales and fantastic myths. Chevalier wanted to be Cyrano (2021) without the musical interludes, but someone forgot the sword fighting, the revolution, and the red hot affairs. A man with the ear of a queen and the bed of a beautiful woman should not be moping in large empty rooms. A man like that isn’t dull. Chevalier is dull and it’s certainly not the legacy he deserved.
Chevalier (2023) is rated PG-13 for mild swears, schoolyard bullying, polite flirting, clandestine canoodling, furious violin “playing,” threats of violence, and sharp disapproving glares from the monarchy.